Nov. 22 is the 60th anniversary of the murder of President John F. Kennedy. Those old enough to remember that day will always recall where they were and where they heard of it. Less reliably, many—even many not born till much later, will think they knew the man. But in all too many cases, they know only the legend, not the reality.
On this anniversary, the media will probably continue to prop up the legends of the 1960s, especially those concerning JFK. Once again, the old stories will be trotted out, with perhaps a few modifications, to cover certain embarrassing matters that have become too public. JFK will be presented as a glamorous war hero, unmatched orator, an author and devotee of the arts and intellectual pursuits, the man who got us to the moon, furthered civil rights and liberal causes. He’ll be portrayed as the victor in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the greatest crisis of the Cold War, and the man who saved the world from nuclear war almost single-handedly, except for the help of his brother, against the reckless advice of most of his advisers. Finally, to many, JFK is the man who would have saved us from Vietnam, if only he had lived.
All these mythmaking portraits were marshalled particularly by veterans of his administration, such as former White House Counsel Ted Sorensen and the historian and former White House Special Assistant Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. They have been repeated to this day, notably in Mark K. Updegrove’s recent book, Incomparable Grace (2022), which is far from the most extreme example of Kennedy worship.
Kennedy has become a godlike figure in American mythology. His cult has been upheld by liberals, much of the left (although some leftists have been skeptical), and most neoconservatives (with the distinguished exception of Donald Kagan). Some libertarians and even conservatives also have tried to seize him as a hero for their own purposes—a good example of the latter case is Ira Stoll’s ridiculous 2013 book, JFK, Conservative.
Despite all this adulation, the real JFK was a man who can only be described with a four-letter word: Fake.
A British general, telling off Lord Mountbatten, once said,“ Dick, you are so crooked, if you ate a nail, a corkscrew would come out your other end.” That comment could have been directed at JFK with at least equal justice.
Of all American presidents, JFK’s reputation for honesty and nobility is the most fraudulent. Kennedy was something fortunately rare in a modern democratic country, at least until recently: a man whose whole life was a lie, whose reputation has so little basis in truth that it requires explanation.
Kennedy was not lacking in a number of abilities that help to explain the legend. While he was no genius, he was also not an idiot (as were some of his successors!). Backed by a powerful family, he developed into an excellent speaker with overflowing charm and charisma, and inherited his father’s skill at manipulating the media. He was an exceedingly skillful liar, and as president he surrounded himself with a crew of other skilled liars, notably Sorensen and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He was remarkably good at presenting different faces to different audiences and avoiding being caught in his contradictions. To present to the public an image of wholesome family life, he cleverly used his beautiful wife and children—though he had remarkably little to do with any of them.
Kennedy also brilliantly furthered his political career by exploiting the crisis in confidence in the Western world that occurred after the Soviets were the first into space with Sputnik. He encouraged the media’s ridiculous portrayal of the Eisenhower era and even the whole postwar period as a period of stagnation, promising to “get the country moving again.”
He fit like a glove the mood of America in late 1950s and early 1960s, which was a very strange mood indeed. It was one that mixed fear, dissatisfaction, and hope; fear of Soviet victory, dissatisfaction with the prosperity and placidity of domestic affairs, and hope that the remaining social ills of American society could be fixed within a short time. There also were more complex undercurrents. Notably, the feeling that there had to be something better than the competitive, materialistic existing society. Perhaps there was something better—but those who sought it then never found it, and indeed only made things worse.
Not that Kennedy really cared about these things; but the image he projected fitted the emotional need of the time. For many liberals, he represented a reincarnation of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
This haloed image of JFK during the time would become permanent through the aura of martyrdom produced by his murder, though exactly what he was martyred for would usually be left unexplained. The JFK myth was further enshrined into American mythology through the nostalgia many Americans felt for the time during which he had been president. The early 1960s seemed to many—and really were—far more pleasant than the remainder of the decade and the whole period leading up to the 1980s, which was one of the dreariest eras in the history of the United States.
But the image obscured difficult truths about the man. It is true that Kennedy was a real war hero who saved a wounded man; though he escaped responsibility for the loss of his PT boat in very odd circumstances. He got a Pulitzer Prize for a book he did not write. He cheated on his wife on an epic scale. And he recklessly abused dangerous drugs. This last fact has curiously gone almost unnoticed, though it would be seem to be more serious than his adultery, which has become so well-known that even his adoring biographers have had to acknowledge it.
He cultivated intellectuals and artists but had not the slightest interest in either. He regarded intellectuals with contempt, which was not unmerited, for he found them easily fooled. He was often obsessed with vendettas against others he disliked—most notably his Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson.
Contrary to contorted interpretations, he was neither liberal nor conservative, but an unprincipled opportunist. His early attitude toward liberals was so cold that it caused him trouble later; he had to backtrack, helped by liberals who “adjusted the record,” among other things passing over his friendship with Senator Joseph McCarthy, a forgiveness they would not have extended to others.
In office, Kennedy’s record consisted largely of blunders, failures, and dishonesty on an epic scale. A poor administrator and organizer, he was a rotten judge of men, notably of his disastrous Secretary of Defense, McNamara, who he imagined was the best man in his cabinet. He swallowed whole the biggest myths of the era, all of which favored increased government control—Keynesianism in economics, guerrilla war and counterinsurgency in foreign policy, and the managerial mystique in domestic policy—in other words, that “a good manager can manage anything, ” that crises and the use of force could be “fine-tuned.”
Despite the mouthy, tough-sounding speeches about foreign affairs given in the early days of his presidency, Kennedy seems to have really supposed that some sort of businesslike deal could be concluded with the Soviets. He was continually surprised by their hostile actions, even those widely predicted.
His most eloquent speeches—his inaugural speech, his embrace of civil rights in the spring of 1963, and the “peace speech” calling for improved relations with the Soviets in June 1963, as well his blather at the Berlin Wall later that year—were contradictory, dishonest, hypocritical, or just bore no relation to the reality of his policies or what he really thought.
Kennedy’s famous peace speech merely echoed, in gooey fashion, things Eisenhower had said in two addresses in April and December 1953 about the need for peaceful relations with the Soviet Union. Those were reasonable, dignified gestures toward Stalin’s successors, which, of course, had no result whatever. JFK’s peace overture comported oddly with his later speech on the Berlin Wall, which harped on the Wall as an exemplification of the evils of Communism (of which it was really a mild example). When the Wall had gone up, Kennedy was entirely indifferent to the fate of the Germans. In fact he was relieved, thinking, wrongly as usual, that the crisis over the city was ending.
In domestic matters, Kennedy was a failure. He got only a few measures, mostly uncontroversial or minor, through Congress; some of which represented policies that were ultimately wasteful, such as his Area Redevelopment Administration rural poverty program, or disastrous, such as his steps toward deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill. Paradoxically, his incompetence in dealing with Congress was one factor promoting his bloated reputation, for when Lyndon Johnson, a far more skillful politician, got his version of Kennedy’s liberal program passed into law, it led to failures and disasters. Johnson’s reward was to be blamed by liberals for a generation’s worth of their grotesque misunderstandings and bad planning.
Kennedy’s interest in civil rights was entirely cynical. His strategy in the 1950s was simply to be the Northern candidate least objectionable to white Southerners. Swerving toward civil rights rhetoric during the 1960 campaign just to keep blacks from voting for Nixon, he did as little as possible after entering office, even appointing open bigots such as William Cox to federal judgeships. He was hostile to the Freedom Riders who challenged segregation in 1961, and he was initially hostile to the 1963 March on Washington, at which Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Kennedy only changed his opposition to the march under severe political pressure, and even then he never attended the march. He later hypocritically lectured those who happened to share his earlier indifference.
Kennedy did not give a damn, either, for the exploration of space. A young fogy, he was less interested in space than was Eisenhower. The Apollo Project was undertaken for Cold War political purposes, and JFK may even have been considering cutting back or abandoning it before he died.
Kennedy’s handling of the Cold War and his public statements about it, were so muddled, inconsistent, and dishonest that they have been the source of endless confusion. Remarkably ill-informed, he spread misinformation in a grand style. He insisted that there would be a missile gap, in which the Soviets would produce many more intercontinental ballistic missiles than the U.S., long after the Eisenhower administration had concluded that the initial forecasts predicting one were mistaken. His rhetoric about the missile gap, which he used in his 1958 Senate campaign and against Richard Nixon in his 1960 presidential campaign, continued for most of a year after he entered office, despite the fact that it undermined the Western position in the Cold War.
Some consistency can be found in his positions if one thinks in terms of categories. In dealing with the Soviets, in Berlin and the Cuban Missile crisis, he was cautious to the point of timidity, despite some of the bellicose noises he made. He tried to appease the Soviets’ non-Communist allies—Indonesia and the radical Arab states of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq—believing that authoritarian leaders like Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Indonesian President Sukarno were the “wave of the future” in the underdeveloped countries. They had to be put up with; at worst, their friendship could be bought. That policy proved a complete failure. Only in dealing with the small Communist powers that seemed to present a threat to the local “dominos” in Southeast Asia and Latin America—the Vietnamese Communists and Castro’s Cuba—could his policies be considered bold. This is possibly because Kennedy wrongly imagined those countries could not fight back very well, and outright victories by Communists, as opposed to the Nassers and Sukarnos, would look bad.
His policies toward the last category of enemy—the small Communist countries— were, as usual, incompetent. In the case of Cuba he was poorly served by the CIA, but he shared many of that agency’s worst ideas. Those included totally unrealistic estimates of Cuban public opinion, of Castro’s military strength and political controls, and of the chances of a popular uprising.
Kennedy was also wrongly convinced that the American role in the Bay of Pigs invasion could be hidden, not just before the attack but permanently. Rejecting the CIA’s original plan, which had little if any chance of success, he insisted on changes that made victory even less likely. Then, when the operation went forward, he failed to execute the plan as agreed. Even after the disaster, he imagined Castro could be overthrown without a major American military operation.
The Cuban Missile Crisis remains surrounded by many false ideas, despite the efforts to correct the record by able scholars such as Alksandr Fursenko, Timothy J. Naftali, Sheldon M. Stern, and Max Holland. In this case, the interests of the Kennedys coincided with those of many other people. For very few predicted the most dangerous crisis of the Cold War, and very few in the government handled their responsibilities well.
The vast majority of “experts,” in and outside the government, pooh-poohed the idea that the Soviets would base strategic weapons in Cuba. The few who foresaw the threat, most importantly CIA head John McCone, won no praise for being right, only abuse. So many historical accounts minimize the American government struggle to locate the missiles. And it was in the interests of many involved, especially the Kennedy brothers, to minimize the missiles’ strategic threat and pretend they were just a “political threat.” Similarly, a true account of the debates within the U.S. government after the missiles were found is not very complimentary to most involved.
Contrary to the conventional hagiographies of the Kennedy brothers, they rarely presented a united front in handling the Missile Crisis, and differed greatly for some time. After whining “How could [Nikita Khrushchev] do this to me!,” JFK wavered between doing nothing—which seems to have been his preferred course—and launching a surprise attack on the missile bases, while his brother mumbled about a preventive war.
Finally, JFK risked war over an issue he himself did not regard as truly vital. Some members of the “ExComm” group handling the crisis were initially willing either to invade Cuba and/or attack the Cuban bases right away, or to offer drastic concessions to the Soviets—not only giving a pledge not to invade Cuba, but withdrawing American missiles not just from Turkey but Italy, maybe giving up Berlin and limiting American use of Guantanamo. Only after erratic and confusing arguments did the group settle on blockading Cuba first, and then only to attack the missile bases and invade Cuba if the blockade did not bring the Soviets around.
Later, the Kennedys and others abused Adlai Stevenson for suggesting that it might be reasonable to negotiate with the Soviets by removing American nuclear missiles from Turkey, and giving up Guantanamo in return for major concessions in neutralizing Cuba. Their conveniently flexible memories forgot that earlier in the crisis they and their ExComm advisors had been willing to make greater concessions in exchange for far less than Stevenson wanted, and many opposed the “Turkish trade” only later.
Perhaps the ultimate JFK myth was that he and his brother saved the world from nuclear war by defying all their advisors and forcing through an agreement with the Soviets to withdraw American nukes from Turkey in exchange for the removal of the missiles in Cuba. In fact, by the time Kennedy made these concessions, which were recommended much earlier by Stevenson and other advisors, the Soviets were giving signs of folding. Khrushchev had already decided to drop his demand for the missile withdrawal from Turkey, which he had made at a stage when he thought the Americans were weakening, a fact confirmed by Soviet documents made public decades after the crisis.
And then there is the myth of Kennedy as a Vietnam War peacemaker. A startling number of people seem to imagine that, had he lived, JFK would have “saved us from Vietnam.” The most extreme version of this erroneous belief claims that Kennedy was murdered to prevent him from withdrawing America from Vietnam. To be sure, no post-World War II president bears sole responsibility for the Vietnam mess, and no one comes off well. But Kennedy’s policies contributed greatly to the disaster of the Second Indochina War.
It’s clear from a perusal of U.S. foreign relations documents from the last years of the Eisenhower administration that the Communist guerrillas in South Vietnam were getting stronger, and that the dictatorship of Ngô Đình Diệm was not handling things well. Kennedy came into office with a long history of support for Diệm and prepared to ignore the misgivings of his predecessor. He was obsessed with the “domino theory,” the belief that if South Vietnam fell to the Communists, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow. His only known doubt about that was due to an even more fatalistic idea: that once China got nuclear weapons, the whole region would fall in any case.
During 1961, Kennedy started greatly enlarging the American military role in South Vietnam from a military advisory group of under 700, to a force of 15,000 men in which American advisers, Special Forces, and airmen engaged in limited combat. Characteristically, he lied about this to the public until in 1962, when the news of American casualties could no longer be hidden.
Kennedy’s escalation was coupled with all-out, almost uncritical support of the Diệm regime. “Sink or swim with Diệm,” was the common way Kennedy’s policies were described at the time. That sabotaged any effort to reform either the South Vietnamese military or impose genuine land reforms and other reform policies that would have undercut the Communists’ popular appeal. During 1962, buoyed by reports that American armed helicopters were giving the Communists real difficulties, the Kennedy administration was sure the war was going well. It concluded that by the end of 1965 the Americans could withdraw as victors, leaving the South Vietnamese to finish off the enemy. Only a few people in Washington, for example Kennedy’s Ambassador to India, Chester Bowles, doubted this.
There was very little pressure on Kennedy in 1962 and 1963, contrary to what has sometimes been claimed, to do more in Vietnam. The U.S. Air Force thought the war could be won more swiftly if it was allowed to bomb some targets in North Vietnam, but did not claim the war would be lost without that step. Americans remained wildly optimistic, except for a few military men like Army Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, and reporters like The New York Times’ David Halberstam. The administration even accepted a military suggestion that things were going so well that a token withdrawal of 1,000 men could be made by the end of 1963.
Kennedy shared all these delusions. He turned against Diệm in 1963 not because of his real faults, which had been ignored or downplayed for years, but because Washington swallowed the wrong assertion that the Catholic Ngô family were persecuting Buddhists. It was assumed that once the Ngôs disposed of, the war would continue to be won. He never realized that he had been wrong.
Lyndon Johnson discovered the real situation in Vietnam—that it had been deteriorating all along and was getting even worse—only just before Christmas 1963. There is no evidence for the idea that President Kennedy “secretly” decided that the war was being lost or not worth fighting. He was still ardently endorsed the domino theory in the fall of 1963. Indeed, he expected to withdraw from Vietnam in 1965, like almost everyone else—victoriously.
Along with almost the whole foreign policy and defense establishment, Kennedy had blown whatever chance had existed, which may never have been anything but slight, of preserving a non-Communist South Vietnam without a massive American commitment of combat units.
The idea that he had planned to give up the war was promoted by some of his associates years later, when Vietnam threatened to destroy the reputations of anyone connected with it. They claimed Kennedy had decided to just pull out of Vietnam in 1965, after he was safely reelected—presumably letting it fall.
This is a false revision of history and of Kennedy’s stated intentions regarding Vietnam, but even on its own terms, why would anyone consider it a complimentary story? If JFK knew it the war was lost in 1963, why is it acceptable that he would have waited to withdraw for another two years, two years in which many American lives were bound to be lost in Vietnam, just so he could avoid the issue until after being reelected?
Kennedy’s continued reputation as a principled peacemaking president is a fiction that flies in the face of evidence. It’s also a testament to how effective Kennedy’s loyal associates were at burnishing the JFK legend, papering over his faults, and deflecting blame both from his mistakes and from their warped thinking.
But why would anyone expect a man like this to have sane, honest associates?